Gov. Greg Abbott signs HB4, which adds funding for pre-K, into law at the Anita Uphaus Early Childhood Center in Austin Texas May 28, 2015. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas will divvy up more than $116 million among 578 school districts and charter schools to bolster high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Tuesday.

State lawmakers approved the grant program during last year’s legislative session after Gov. Greg Abbott named early education as his top legislative priority, though some pre-K advocates argued that the grants didn’t go far enough.

The funding will reach nearly half of the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charters. Qualifying districts can receive up to $1,500 per student under the program, but received $734 per student. Grant awards ranged from $3,600 for smaller school districts to $9.2 million for the Houston school district, the state’s largest. The awards will be paid out in two installments: the first one coming immediately and another this fall.

“Implementation of this important grant program, which remains a priority of Gov. Abbott, provides important educational support to our youngest Texans,” Morath said in a statement. “By working to ensure and expand high quality prekindergarten programs across our state, we take an important step toward ensuring every child is prepared for the classroom from the very first day.”

The passage of House Bill 4 during last year’s legislative session was uncertain at times amid criticism from staunch conservatives — including those on a panel that advises Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who saw it as an expansion of state-funded pre-K.

Early education advocates also lobbed criticisms at the legislation, hoping it would emerge stronger from the legislative meat grinder. They complained that it did not mandate — or fund — full-day pre-K or fully restore a similar, $200 million grant program lawmakers gutted in 2011. (The state currently funds half-day pre-K programs for students who are needy, including those in foster care and those from military families.)

But Abbott, and the lawmakers who championed the legislation on his behalf, stressed that the grant program would incentivize high-quality programs by allocating funding to districts that met certain standards including certified teachers and a parent engagement plan. It also would require districts to report pre-K enrollment and other indicators to the state for the first time, as they do for K-12, they noted.

At one point, the program was pegged to receive $130 million. That later fell to $118 million.

“It will be a challenge for school districts to turn these relatively small grants into sustained improvements in program quality and student performance,” said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, in a statement. “These pre-K grants are a good step but state leaders will have to continue the $118 million per school year investment and support other community pre-K improvement efforts to see real returns for kids.”

The children’s policy organization emphasized that the $734 per-student grant award falls far short of the maximum $1,500 allowed under program. Twenty-eight districts that applied for the funds were either denied the grants or ultimately chose not to participate in the grant program, the group noted in a news release.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Top image: Gov. Greg Abbott signs HB4, which adds funding for pre-K, into law at the Anita Uphaus Early Childhood Center in Austin Texas May 28, 2015. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune.

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Kiah Collier

Kiah Collier

Kiah Collier reports on the environment and public education for the Texas Tribune, where she began working in July 2015. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 with degrees in...